Cate Sharper was an enslaved woman in the mid to late 1700s. Her name, and that of her son Jack, appear in the probate records of the Prince George’s county family that enslaved her. How she came to this land and what happened to her and her son we do not know from the records that survived the intervening 250 years. But because she was a real woman who lived and worked this land, we want to remember her. With the help of staff and research, we have created a story that could have been her story—or the story of any enslaved woman during this period of Maryland history. Shemika Berry, the Interpretation Coordinator at the National Colonial Farm, portrays Cate Sharper on site.
This is Cate Sharper in her own words, as we imagine them.
“I grew up on a tobacco farm. My Grandparents came from the motherland. My mother Esther was born on another farm a little further away, and then I grew up on that land. Some of my earliest memories are with Grandmother and Grandfather out in the fields. Grandfather was teaching me the proper way of pulling off the horn worms, the most unappealing creatures that you’d never want to see! They can grow to be about the length of your finger, and can be as fat as your thumb. Now mind you, they are the same color green as the tobacco which makes it almost impossible to see, except for the fact they have little yellow stripes that go down the back and a little horn that just wiggles at you. You have to pull them off just so, lest they spit out everything they been eating all over your hands. Grandfather showed me long ago how to do it, but once you don’t pull them off just right you WILL suffer the consequences. Then you must wipe them on the ground and squish them lest they crawl right back and start eatin’ up on that tobacco. We call it “The Worm That Never Dies”. Now, if the tobacco starts to get holes in it, or is half-eaten away, that makes that leaf no good. I must be out there morning, noon, and night tending to the tobacco.
It can be very grueling work. The other creature that is dangerous to the crop is the flea beetle. They are the bane of my existence.
I came to the Bolton farm upon Mistress Bolton’s marriage to Master Bolton, some 20 odd years ago. My last name is Sharper because I’m married to Tom, who is a free man. Master and Mistress Bolton didn’t have no problem with us getting married for they knew I couldn’t go nowhere even though he was free. The Boltons used to pay him a small wage for his work on the farm because he is free, but Tom’s not here on the land with me no more. Some time ago the Boltons’ younger son, Josiah, took terrible ill. They thought that child was gonna die, but they used all the money that they had to get medicine for him, and he came to but because they didn’t have any more money, Tom had to go find work elsewhere. So, he’s a few miles up the road and found a more open-minded farmer who rents him land and he grows his own tobacco. At night, when the Boltons are sleepin’, and I’ve finished all my chores I steal away to help him tend to his tobacco.
Now between the two of us we have a son named Jack. That is my pride and joy. He’s always so quick to help. I taught him to read early on. Oh yes, I can read too, it is not unlawful for slaves to know how to read. Miss Charity taught me my letters by embroidery and I stitched them on my pocket. Some of my favorite memories of that child were of him climbing up to the rafters hanging up some of those tobacco leaves. Jack would always say “Momma, don’t worry! Imma climb up there and hang the tobacco for you!” he’s not here to hang the tobacco no more neither.
A year after Josiah took ill, there was a swarm of flea beetles like something I ain’t never seen. Now flea beetles themselves are teeny tiny creatures, but when there is a swarm of them it’s almost like a cloud and they descended upon that tobacco like you would not believe. They eat up the seedlings when they first come out the ground and the Boltons lost nearly half their crop. Master Bolton was worried that they would lose the land, so he and Mistress Bolton discussed it among themselves and decided they needed to sell off some property so that they could buy enough seed to continue with the growing. They took my Jack from me. He was nearing his 12th year at the time. I’ll never forget that day when they took him down to the Potomac. Sent him up the river. I felt like my heart was ripped out and went right on up the river with him. My husband is gone. My son been sold away. I thought I was gonna die right then and there. I took to my bed for 3 weeks. Missus was afraid I would die, and Master was concerned about losing another piece of his property. Then he had the idea of giving me a little plot of the garden so that I could tend to it, to have something living to tend to and take care of. He thought me tending to a garden would make up for losing my child.
Mama always said I was a clever one. After a few weeks of toilin’ and plantin’ I came up with the idea that if Tom could sell his tobacco and have the money for himself, then why not could I sell some of my fruits and vegetables and have it for myself? When Tom comes to visit with me, I grow some extra fruit and vegetables and send it back with him. I did say I steal away at night times and help him pull off his horn worms; I take some extra to him during those times, too. Our hope is that we are able to save enough money between his tobacco and my fruits and vegetables so that we can purchase Jack’s freedom. You know, he is in his 16th year now and nearing a man. It doesn’t matter that Tom is a free man, my child being born of me makes Jack a slave. It is all I want in this world, for him to be free like his father, and not a slave like his mother.”